The strange thing is that five months ago, everyone saw this game coming. The stranger thing is that five weeks ago, nobody saw this game coming.
Before the season, I made the point a number of times that the 2013 installment of the Battle for the Bluegrass was going to mean less than any other in recent memory because of the fact both sides were almost expecting to see one another more than once. While the assumption of a future meeting in March is always more than a tad risky, it was certainly more understandable this year than any other I can recall.
The past two national champions were going to begin the season ranked in the top three, roll through their early non-conference slate, and then square off in a game that meant everything when it came to bragging rights, but little in the grand scheme of things. This was the year that "see you in March" was going to be more than just the sore loser's battle cry.
That's not exactly how it went down.
Louisville and Kentucky entered their Dec. 28 showdown with a grand total of zero quality wins between them. The Cardinals had played one opponent of any consequence, surrendered 93 points to them, and lost. The Wildcats, meanwhile, had just become the first team in the history of the coaches' poll to fall from preseason No. 1 to out of the top 20 before the end of December.
The 73-66 victory in Lexington wound up helping Kentucky more than it could have known at the time, as the SEC struggled to send a third team to the NCAA Tournament and the Cats couldn't figure out Florida in three tries. The loss also wound up hurting Louisville more than it could have known at the time, as the Cards started league play in the super top-heavy AAC with home losses to Cincinnati and Memphis, making the rest of the nation wonder if they were capable of rising to the occasion when a situation called for it.
This was where we all assumed the rivalry story of 2013-14 ended. We probably should have known better.
It's always felt like this latest chapter of the rivalry was headed for some sort of climax this season, if for no other reason than that there was no way it could possibly get any bigger. The rise of social media paired with the arrival of John Calipari and the unreal success of both teams has led to as much contention between a pair of programs as I think is possible.
This also feels like something of a crescendo for the dueling philosophies the programs have adopted to combine for four Final Four appearances and two national championships since 2011.
Three years ago, Kentucky fans took Rick Pitino's "Louisville First" slogan as a direct response to John Calipari and the success he was having at UK with his "one and done" philosophy. Now, a year after Pitino won a national championship doing things his way, Calipari is releasing a book where he preaches the importance of placing more emphasis on a player's future than on the success of the team or program you're in charge of. The book's title begins with the words "Players First." I can't imagine that's a coincidence.
While "Louisville First" vs. "Players First" may not be quite as simple as Louisville vs. Kentucky, it's silly to dismiss the notion that the rivalry isn't the primary fuel here. Each coach thinks they have a hook that is superior to the other's, and they're going to play it up.
For all these reasons, some have started referring to these past few years as a "golden age" for the Louisville-Kentucky rivalry. There's only one problem with that. While the storylines certainly fit the mold, for this to be a true golden age, both sides need to be winning about the same amount. While the overall achievements of the Cards and Cats over the past five years have been comparable, there's no getting around the fact that UK has had U of L's number when the two have been on the court at the same time.
Regardless of what happens on Friday, Kentucky's Final Four win two seasons ago is still going to be the biggest single punch thrown in this rivalry's recent history. That said, a Louisville win could be that crucial, underrated body blow that leads to a win by unanimous decision if the Cards march on to their third Final Four in as many years while the Cats watch on from Lexington.
The best and worst thing about the Louisville/Kentucky rivalry has always been that they play just once a season. It creates a de facto holiday in the state and makes the stakes and intensity surrounding the game much higher than they'd be if the teams were guaranteed no less than two meetings (like *cough cough* some rivalries). For somewhere around 365 days, one group of fans gets chest-thumping rights while the only avenue of rejoinder for the other is "if they'd played again."
Not this year.
What sets Friday's game apart from the meeting in New Orleans two years ago is that, regardless of what Vegas says, there's no clear favorite. Louisville entered the tournament as one of the trendiest picks of all, but a less-than-sparkling opening weekend performance has the nation giving a second look at the Cards' regular season resume. Kentucky is the preseason No. 1 turned eight seed that is playing at a level which has everyone wondering if the problem all year long was simply that the stage wasn't big enough. Oh, and they also beat Louisville by seven three months ago.
There will be no cordial postgame banter of "this is just your all's year" or "you all gave us a hell of a fight and you're going to be back next season." These two started the season thinking national title or bust, and that's still the mindset of both with just four rounds left in the tournament.
While the 2012 game meant more overall because it came in the national semifinals, it almost feels like this game means more to the rivalry.
f Kentucky wins, not only do the Cats have a very real shot at realizing their preseason ranking, but the victory turns the rivalry narrative into the complete inability of successful Louisville teams to beat UK. If Louisville wins, Big Blue Nation will still cling to John Calipari's 5-2 record against U of L, but suddenly the Cardinals will be the team having more postseason success, and suddenly those December victories aren't going to mean as much.
There will be no talk this summer of a hypothetical March meeting between the Cards and the Cats, no gloating by fans of the team that didn't make further in the tournament and no doubt as to which program has more momentum.
The predictable showdown that became the game no one saw coming is a little over 24 hours away from becoming a reality. And the stakes are pretty high.